Article provided by Craig Kessler, SCGA
Monday, April 24, 2023
To live in Southern California is not only to understand how it is possible to be on flood watch and drought watch at the same time, it is to understand also how it is possible to live during the greatest growth period in the game’s history in the most golf starved market in the United States while losing golf courses of all types and sizes. We conservatively count thirty (30) facilities that have been closed, reduced, or are under threat of both in just the last few years.
Yes, we staved off what could have been a feeding frenzy on municipal golf courses when we beat back Assembly Bills 672 and 1910. But that didn’t slow market capitalism’s steady march of daily fee conversions to higher and better financial uses, and it didn’t stop environmentalism’s steady press for the repurposing of active recreational areas to passive uses.
Maybe the owners of daily fee properties and the developers that repurposed them along with the city planners that facilitated the projects didn’t read all those economic impact reports the golf industry puts out about all the jobs, taxes, and multiplier economic benefits the game produces. Or maybe they know of what they do, and what they’re doing is making a whole lot more money doing things other than golf. Just maybe the value that golf courses bring to the communities in which they sit has little to do with the kind of value that can be counted the way economists count value and everything to do with the ways much more difficult to count – recreation, green space, heat relief, water resiliency, community centers, etc. And just maybe it is those things that golf might be better pressed to spend its limited resources sharing with policy makers.
California is not just the land of permanent drought; it’s the land of permanent contradiction, where exploding demand is met by shrinking supply and accusations that bots control Internet reservation systems. How else can tee sheets be completely sold out 9 days in advance in less than 20 seconds, critics complain, never considering that it’s not the bots that are the problem; it’s the market that created their value that’s the problem.
The National Golf Foundation (NGF) may be flooding the World Wide Web with reports of golf’s great growth spurt and judging by those packed public tee sheets (private club waiting lists too) the same holds true in Southern California. But that growth will be impossible to sustain without places for all of them to play.
It’s the elephant in golf’s room and just happens to be the subject of Craig Kessler’s Public Affairs piece in the Spring issue of SCGA’s hard copy magazine FORE, which just went up on SCGA’s website (scga.org) and is hitting members’ homes this week. So, we are going to do something that we have never done in an SCGA Public Affairs Update – reprint the piece so that the many of you who don’t receive FORE can read it. It puts a lot more meat on the bones summarized here.
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Golf’s “Struggle” To See What’s Under Its Nose
The USGA’s “Team USA” initiative may put more Americans on PGA leaderboards and American golfers on Olympic podiums, but here in Southern California we need to figure out how to accommodate an exploding golf population on fewer golf courses, a feat that is not really possible, or at least not possible at a price structure conducive to the game’s aspirations to diversify and grow its base. What was it that we all learned in Econ 101 about supply and demand? Many in golf act as though they missed that lesson. Blinders don’t change what’s in front of you; they just obscure it.
For those who thought that beating back the “Public Golf Endangerment Act” (AB 1910) beat back the game’s “development” problem, think again. For those who thought that the game’s development problem was just an urban problem, look deeper at what’s happening well outside California’s urban core. For those who thought that they could ignore the signpost known as zero daily-fee golf courses in the City of Los Angeles, take off the blinders. And for those who think that we’ll muddle through the drying out of the Colorado Basin without serious consequences for the Southern California golf community, kindly pay heed to what California’s six partners in the Colorado Compact have proposed.
AB 1910 may have been enough of a crude overreach that golf was able to awaken enough of the state’s 3.5 million golfers to a danger so obvious that even a community as complacent as golf was able to rally enough of its members to take action — a community that had been asleep at the legislative switch for so long that the opposition came as a genuine surprise to the proponents of the bill. Caveat: You can only surprise people once, particularly people who are active in politics. As the laws keep evolving to prefer housing over parks, open space and recreation, golf cannot be content to merely duplicate last year’s campaign and expect the same successful result.
Land Under Pressure
As for those who have suggested that the effort to repurpose golf courses is only a problem in densely packed urban areas where land is scarce, take a closer look at what is in the process of befalling Glen Annie GC in the Goleta area of Santa Barbara County. Glen Annie has long been zoned “agricultural,” along with the rest of the open space and avocado orchards surrounding it. Given that efforts to construct housing to meet the needs of an exploding student population at nearby UC Santa Barbara have long been met with failure in the planning processes of Santa Barbara County, the owners of Glen Annie understood that unless they preferred harvesting avocados to greens fees, any effort to develop their land for residential or commercial purposes was an exercise in futility.
Not anymore. Faced with the threat of the “builders remedies” that would follow from failing to offer up substantial tracts of land for housing development, the County of Santa Barbara moved to rezone substantial tracts of agricultural properties as residential in order to keep the State of California at bay.
Included among these agricultural tracts was Glen Annie. The same process of market capitalism that destroyed the daily fee market in the City of Los Angeles is now in the process of operating in rural Santa Barbara County, and by implication is likely to be duplicated in other rural communities that have failed to meet the state’s onerous new housing element requirements.
As for those who suggest that economic analyses of golf’s multiplier effects can save this particular day, let me suggest that only those who have not read the development proposals I have read could suggest such a thing. Current case in point: the repurposing of 75 of Los Angeles Royal Vista’s 157-acre 27-hole daily fee golf course in Los Angeles County’s unincorporated community of Walnut in the San Gabriel Valley. The county’s independent financial analysis of this massive housing development has concluded that repurposing will create new county revenues of $2.86 million per year, $1.82 million of which will go to the county’s general fund, as well as 1,852 jobs and the multiplier economic benefits that follow from adding hundreds of new households where now only day-tripping golfers add to the local economy.
The developers are throwing in a seven-acre public access park at their own expense, along with a series of trails through a housing complex, 20 percent of which qualifies as affordable. While this project is a particularly laudable one in terms of community amenities, in addition to the financial advantages and housing construction that are part of all of these project proposals, it’s not an outlier by any means. Golf will continue to lose out to them, even in an area of the nation that the NGF has declared the most golf-starved market in the continental United States.
Those who believe that the retrenchment of the Colorado Basin won’t affect a Southern California golf community long accustomed to a fixed and generous allocation guaranteed by senior rights and privileges need to take a close look at the methodology that California’s six partners in the Compact have proposed — an “evaporation” methodology that just happens to repose almost all the burden of ceding 2-4 million acre-feet of water on California.
While those six states don’t really believe that their proposed methodology will come to fruition, they have succeeded in making clear that the days of slavish adherence to all those past arrangements are over. A new day not yet determined and not knowable is upon us, but this much we do know: The “new day” won’t include the generous and disproportionate Colorado River allocation upon which California has long relied for its full complement of imports. It’s not a matter of whether, only of how much.
Whether at the federal or state level, these are signposts that should inform golf that a cascade of changes that are sure to eventually affect the game are in the offing.
See, Study, Act
These are some of the things that I see, hear, read, and confront that cause me to issue what can best be described here as a Jeremiad. Let me suggest that because he served for years as LPGA commissioner before being named CEO of the USGA, Mike Whan was uniquely positioned to see something about the way the American competitive game is organized to cause him to understand that unless something is done to change it in terms of developing young talent in a more organized and supportive way, the PGA Tour could easily lose much of its current stronghold on the American imagination, leading to a cascade of consequences that the business of the game would find troublesome.
Whan saw, studied, thought, and then acted. That is how I would describe the birth of Team USA. I can only hope that before it’s too late, some of the game’s leaders will see, study, think and then take the parallel actions necessary at the community level to do what other sports and recreational activities have long done: Recognized that absent the creation of amply funded facilities programs, golf is destined to lose the very playing fields it needs to sustain current levels of participation, let alone grow and diversify.
As George Orwell put it in his famous 1946 essay about our bottomless capacity to hold contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time, “To see what is in front of one’s nose takes a constant struggle.”
A little more “struggle” and a little less adherence to dogma might focus the game’s attention on what it needs most.
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Descending the pulpit, or if you prefer, signing off from the soapbox.